Nick Silver Can't Sleep

Janice Kerbel

Online (originally broadcast on BBC Radio 3)
28 October 2006

Audio: Nick Silver Can't Sleep

15 minutes 34 seconds
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A narcotic tale of thwarted desire for love and sleep set in an urban garden on a moonless night.

Its characters are all nocturnal plants. Nick Silver (Nicotiana sylvestris), a nocturnal subtropical perennial in bloom, longs for Cereus Grand (Selenicereus grandiflorus), an exotic climbing perennial who blooms just one night a year. The two plants are destined, botanically, never to be together.

Kerbel developed her project in conversation with insomniacs, sleep scientists and botanists. The premiere of Nick Silver Can't Sleep, directed by Ariane Koek, was broadcast on 28 October 2006 on BBC Radio 3 show The Verb. The cast is led by Rufus Sewell as Nick Silver, Josette Simon as Moonbeam (Ipomoea alba) and Fiona Shaw as Cereus Grand. 

Also available to listen to on Soundcloud.

Image: Selenicereus grandiflorus, from the Swallowtail Garden Seeds collection of botanical photographs, illustrations, and paintings. Trew, C.J., Ehret, G.D., Plantae selectae, vol. 4: t. 31 (1754) [G.D. Ehret]. Night blooming Cereus (1754). Creative Commons License and found on Flickr.


Script: Nick Silver Can't Sleep

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I want to blow a smoke ring around your long skinny neck. I want to knock you out with my scent; cut loose to the woods where no one can find us. You could clamour around me, take hold and strangle me, tackle me down to the ground. – Nick Silver

Script: Nick Silver Can't Sleep

By Janice Kerbel, 2006


MOONBEAM (male/female)
RIVER (male/female)
MARVEL (male/female)
ZED (male/female)

NICK SILVER: I dream about you, sometimes. I’m surrounded by the blackest of black and stars are falling everywhere. Up above hangs a big fat invisible moon. It’s hot and it’s summer.

MARVEL: It’s late.

ZED: It’s dark.

RIVER: I’m tired.

NICK SILVER: Sometimes I’m out in a field, all alone. Or I’m down by a lake; I’m a kid again, just blowing where the wind takes me. Other times I’m here, exactly as I am, laying low, just waiting. It’s always late. It’s always dark. I’m always tired.

ZED: Are you there?

RIVER: Where?

ZED: Down here.

RIVER: Move over.


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Making Nick Silver Can't Sleep

Janice Kerbel in conversation with Stephen Harris
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Making Nick Silver Can't Sleep

In March 2006 Janice Kerbel talked to Stephen Harris, Druce Curator of Oxford University Herbaria, as part of her background research for Nick Silver Can't Sleep.

Janice Kerbel: I am trying to determine which plants are strictly nocturnal, which have nocturnal properties, and which are nocturnal/diurnal. Is there a known database of plants that are strictly nocturnal? Is there a database of plants with nocturnal properties?

Stephen Harris: No, not as far as I am aware. This material is scattered throughout the literature. The other problem of course is that diurnal properties of plants may change depending on where they are grown. So, a plant may be more or less nocturnal in some parts of the range but not others, particularly if the species is introduced. Nocturnal properties not only include flowering but also leaf movements, e.g. very commonly found in the mimosoid legumes. From the plant’s point of view the important thing is to ensure that the pollen is released and the stigma is receptive. Flower opening is only one part of the reproductive process.

JK: I am searching for plants whose blossoms are open day/night but whose scent is only detectable at night.

SH: Most nocturnal plants will have some scent detectable during the day but this becomes much stronger towards dusk and at night, e.g., species of Nicotiana.

JK: Are there any plants whose nocturnal properties are determined by/parallel with the stages of the moon?

SH: There is no scientific data that I know of on this subject, although there is a lot of folkloric material relating to plants and the phases of the moon.

JK: Do plants have a ‘rest period’ in a 24-hour cycle?

SH: I am not sure what you mean by a ‘rest period’. The other important point of course is that the Circadian rhythm of a plant need not be 24 hours and there is no reason to suppose that all plants have the same ‘internal clock’.

JK: Are there any plants that are believed to be on cycles other than 24-hours?

SH: I do not know of any examples but I don’t see why cycles should not be different between plants, since day length varies between different latitudes.

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Image: Night Blooming Cereus, Selenicereus grandiflorus as Cactus grandiflorus. New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus and the temple of Flora, or garden of nature, Thornton, R.J., (1807) on Swallowtail Garden Seeds. Creative Commons License and found on Flickr.


Nights of London

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Nights of London

Running for just over a year, Nights of London was a thread of projects exploring the nocturnal life of the city. It ran through cinemas and galleries, was hosted on websites, burned onto CDs, written into letters, performed in nightclubs and broadcast via radio channels, before concluding in an old East End town hall that – for one night only – was filled with bat experts, musicians, cabaret artists and paranormal researchers. We heard stories from the unorthodox side of nightfall. We learned about ways of life that, despite their physical proximity, are all but invisible to most of us, most of the time.

Nights of London projects include:

Night Haunts

Nick Silver Can't Sleep


When Night Draws in

To the Man in My Dreams

Radio Nights

About Janice Kerbel

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Janice Kerbel

London-based Canadian artist Janice Kerbel frequently produces work in the form of plans and studies (for instance, wall-mounted gardens for council flats, or respiration gardens for gyms) that promise to be realisable but are never to be fulfilled.

Her internationally-exhibited projects include: Underwood, a series of love letters to the seasons; Bank Job and 15 Lombard St, the meticulously detailed plan for robbing one of London’s city banks; Home Fittings, studies of buildings that show where to step without creaking or casting shadows; and The Bird Island Project, the fictitious development of a paradise island resort. To create Nick Silver Can’t Sleep Kerbel for the first time developed a work in conversation with and for a specific group. It was also her first play.

Image: Only the Lonely; nicotiana sylvestri by Kkmarais, August 2012. Creative Commons License and found on Flickr


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Time expands and contracts as weeks, months, seasons and years appear to pass in a single night — a dreamlike temporality, redolent also of the cyclical rhythms of the vegetable world. — Anna Lovatt, Afterall

Selected Press

Time expands and contracts as weeks, months, seasons and years appear to pass in a single night — a dreamlike temporality, redolent also of the cyclical rhythms of the vegetable world. Breathily, drowsily, Nick awaits his languid Cereus, only to succumb to the vertiginous pull of sleep at the precise moment of her blossoming. – Anna Lovatt, Afterall, Autumn/Winter 2014
The work, which has been developed with insomniacs, sleep scientists and botanists, “utilises the quest for love with the quest for sleep”, as well as lasting  “just longer than it takes to fall comfortably asleep”. — The Guardian, 28 October 2006
The language is fecund without tipping into floridity, and the narrative so simple as to be almost indistinct among the slow poetry of the spoken word.  – Sally O’Reilly, Frieze magazine, January–February 2007


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